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Technology Untangled: Google Maps Timeline incredibly detailed yet fallible

June 13, 2018

technology-bourWe are aware that our smartphones act as personal locator devices. Google gathers location data from Android smartphones through many methods. This is supposedly for our benefit, as well as our detriment in some cases. It is primarily for the financial benefit of Google. Recently I was reminded of how disturbingly detailed this tracking information can be. My investigation also revealed that the tracking data gathered by Google, while massive, is still fallible.

I received an email at the end of the month proclaiming “Your May in Review” from Google Maps Timeline. It said, “Your timeline in Google Maps helps you curate the places you’ve been. Look back on the past month and reminisce about recent trips and past places.” How nice.

The email was crammed with information. There were pictures of some of the five biggest cities I visited. Next there were pictures of some of the 69 places Google determined I visited. Most of the highlighted ones were restaurants and retail establishments. It reported that I had spent over 60 hours in the car last month visiting all those places. When I clicked to further explore my timeline, the first thing highlighted by the report was the three longest trips I took during the month, along with a headline summary of the main stops on each of those trips. At the bottom of the page were three maps with tracings ofmy travels.

As I zoomed in, Google revealed specific information about the driving routes I took. For example, one day I drove a total of 127 miles with a total driving time of 3 hours and 5 minutes. Along the left side was a scrolling itinerary of each leg of the trip, along with precise information about the time of day and the duration of each stop. May 19: Culver’s in Columbus, Indiana. 11:32 a.m. to 12:23 p.m. If I had taken pictures during the trip and saved them with the Google Photos app, I could have also retrieved an integrated display of the photos that I shot at each location.

I could choose any date from the calendar on the left and get similar information. There was also a bar graph comparing the relative amount of driving for each day in the month. As I “zoomed out” the timeline gave me the big picture of all the places I have visited since it started recording data, or essentially since the last time I erased the database from my computer. There were red dots peppered all over the map of the U.S. In all, Google had compiled 524 places that I had visited. They were ranked in a list based on the quantity of visits, the top locations being home, work and school. You can view most of this information right on your phone within the Maps app under the timeline option and drill down to any detail you want. “Honey, what was the name of that seafood restaurant we ate at in Hilton Head last summer?”

While there are methods to turn off some of Google’s location tracking features, I am not convinced that you can still use a smartphone and have all of that completely turned off. As I understand it, Google still tracks your location if you set your phone to airplane mode and even when you turn WiFi and location off. How else could they find you during a 911 emergency call? You can remove the Maps app to at least minimize the tracking, but Google still gathers location data even if you don’t get a monthly timeline report anymore. Remember, Google still wants to make money. It needs to know you are at McDonald’s, for example, to send a pop-up suggestion for you to load the McDonald’s mobile order and pay app to your phone. It can do this because Google Play is always aware of your location.

The application/usefulness of this timeline location data in the legal arena is obvious. Be aware, however, that the data is not perfect. I discovered some mistakes and inconsistencies in my timeline tracking that reveals Google doesn’t “know it all,” at least not yet.

For a recent graduation party, Google faithfully recorded the time and duration of my visit but failed with the location. It in fact pinpointed an address for a home in the next neighborhood, over the backyard fence and about 75 yards away. Another time while relaxing for the afternoon on a private beach along Eagle Creek, Google incorrectly identified my location using the address of the park headquarters, more than a half mile away. And for some places I visit regularly, like church and school, Google still hasn’t recorded the proper names for those locations, instead supplying only generic identifiers along with the GPS coordinates. Perhaps it is because those spots are not retail establishments where Google can make a buck by selling my information.

Aside from the intrusiveness, it still might be fun to use the Google Maps Timeline feature during your travels this summer vacation season. Give it a try and decide for yourself.•

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Stephen Bour (bourtech@iquest.net) is an engineer and legal technology consultant in Indianapolis. His company, the Alliance for Litigation Support Inc., includes Bour Technical Services and Alliance Court Reporting. Areas of service include legal videography, tape analysis, document scanning to CD and courtroom presentation support. The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author.

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